Kristen Lopez on The Rock and The Ghost and Disabled Characters in Movies

Posted on July 14, 2018 at 5:17 pm

Copyright Universal 2018

My friend Kristen Lopez is also one of my favorite critics, knowledgeable, forthright, passionate, and always willing to engage on issues of representation. Recently, she stared down a bunch of rabid fanboys who were upset (“Hey, it’s a MOVIE!”) on Twitter because she called out “Ant-Man and the Wasp” for the tired trope of the disabled bad guy, driven to do bad things because of the disability.

Ant-Man and the Wasp’s treatment of disability will go under the radar. But in a landscape where disability remains marginalized, particularly for women of color (and people of color in general), a character like Ava could have helped opened the door. Chronic pain remains a hot-button issue in the disabled community, and having Ava live with it could have presented something relatable. Instead, Ava is stripped of her problem in order to make her rational, quantifiable, and controllable.

I was interested to see how she would react to Dwayne Johnson’s portrayal of a disabled character in “Skyscraper.” While I prefer to see disabled characters played by disabled actors, I also recognize the idea that any actor should be able to play any part. Until ordinary characters — teachers, accountants, doctors, scientists, parents, children — are shown with disabilities that are not central to their identity and are played by actors with disabilities, I think we should be careful about putting able-bodied people in those roles. And no body is more able than The Rock.

Lopez called Johnson’s portrayal “surprisingly nuanced” and “far better” than what we usually see.

First, she says, “the adversity is the building itself, not Will’s disability….By not making a big deal of his disability, Will is a character who represents a marked improvement in representation. People with disabilities don’t want their disability to define them, and Will’s doesn’t define his character. It adds to it…. His character doesn’t walk away a changed man appreciating being disabled. He gets his family back and seemingly ends the film the same way he started. It’s just a facet of his personality he deals with in order to overcome this great challenge.”

But, she has some concerns as well. “The character is also written to fall into the “able-bodied buffer” category, a term I use to describe any character shown as previously able-bodied before a traumatic event. This ‘buffer’ is created as a means of helping the able-bodied audience bond with the newly disabled character, under the belief that disabled people are so mysterious that there’s no point of entry for the audience short of reminding them the character was one ‘like you.'”

I wasn’t the only one who appreciated this review.


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Movie MVP of the Month: American Sign Language in “Rampage” and “A Quiet Place”

Posted on April 11, 2018 at 8:22 am

Two April movies feature ASL (American Sign Language), the beautiful, complex language based on hands, gestures, and facial expressions that is used by Deaf and non-speaking people in America and English-speaking Canada. “A Quiet Place” is about a family trying to survive in a world overrun with vicious blind animals who attack by using their hyper-acute hearing. So they communicate via ASL, which they all know because they have a Deaf daughter, played by Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds of “Wonderstruck.”

In this week’s “Rampage,” the primatologist played by Dwayne Johnson uses ASL to communicate with an ape called George, along the lines of the famous experiments with Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimp.

And the 2017 Oscar-winner for Best Picture and Best Director was “The Shape of Water,” which also featured ASL, as Sally Hawkins played a mute woman who communicated with a highly evolved amphibian.

Other movies featuring character using ASL to communicate include: “Children of a Lesser God,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Johnny Bedelia,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Baby Driver.”

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Kristen Lopez on Movie Theater Accessibility for Rogerebert.com

Posted on March 29, 2018 at 9:27 am

Bravo to Kristen Lopez for her outstanding piece on rogerebert.com about the accessibility — or inaccessibility — of movie theaters for people with disabilities.

A movie theater should be a peaceful, relaxing place, and I’m sure it is for most in light of reserved seating. Movie theaters have gussied the concept up as the perfect way for all audiences to get the best seat in the house. But movie fans with wheelchairs or other limited mobility don’t get the best seat—they get the only seat. Theaters are mandated to make approximately 10% of the theater seats accessible, so obtaining the two to four wheelchair spaces in my theater can be like a terrible game of musical chairs. The outdated, ableist thinking is wheelchair users bring their own seat, like a lawn chair you plant on a soccer field. It gives them access, but how is this effective with such a small field to play on? Wheelchair users are often stuck sitting in the front rows, on flat ground with no elevation to keep a clear view. The changeover to wider, recliner-style chairs has actually decreased the number of handicap seats, and many of these new chairs come with oversized footrests or outward facing tray tables that prevent wheelchair users from transferring into them to begin with. The same Cinemark I was in has one presumably handicap seat that requires a wheelchair user to climb over the armrest to transfer into. All so you can find a place to set down your popcorn.

This is especially meaningful because Roger Ebert himself used a wheelchair for the last years of his life, and well understood the barriers — physical, logistical, and ignorant — that keep people out of movies, the very art form he called “an empathy machine.”

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The Shape of Water

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 12, 2018
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water,” which was awarded the 2018 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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Wonder

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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